From the minute that Lily Rabe stepped onto the stage of the Delacorte as Portia, in helmer Daniel Sullivan’s wonderful 2010 production of “The Merchant of Venice,” we all had visions of her as Rosalind in “As You Like It.” How sweet it is, then, to watch this captivating actress take command of a role she was born to play. And sweeter still that Sullivan’s enchanting production of this pastoral comedy — ingeniously transported to the hills and hollows of 19th-century Appalachia and driven by its indigenous mountain music — should open the 50th season of Shakespeare in the Park.
Rabe gives a true star turn, deftly balancing Rosalind’s tender feelings for the dashing Orlando (David Furr, a worthy object of desire) with her male alter-ego Ganymede’s hardheaded determination to teach that callow youth a thing or two about love.
But hallelujah, this vivacious performance is not the kind of star turn that mows everyone else down. One reason Rabe plays so well with others is that Sullivan has made sure all the members of his company have backbones of their own.
Andre Braugher lowers the pitch of his melodic voice and tries to look mean as the villainous Duke Frederick, who grabs the dukedom from his brother and banishes him to the Forest of Arden. But it’s nice to have the thesp back as the brother, Duke Senior, who establishes an alternative court in the wilderness where the banished nobles can conduct themselves in a more civilized manner.
Shakespeare salted these woods with clowns and fools. And while there’s a lot of clowning and fooling around — from Robert Joy’s foolish fop Le Beau to Oliver Platt’s sagely silly Touchstone — the characters in this sylvan court remain grounded in reality.
The morose Jacques, always the butt of jokes, gets more respect from Stephen Spinella, whose pensive delivery of the “Seven Ages of Man” speech is an affecting reminder that we all take on many roles over the course of a lifetime. The character of Rosalind’s giddy cousin Celia is also taken more seriously, and in a sweetly endearing turn from Renee Elise Goldsberry proves herself a true and loyal friend.
In Sullivan’s imaginative staging, the enchanted forest is its own living character. The rural American ambiance conveyed by John Lee Beatty’s rustic mountain setting and Jane Greenwood’s plain homespun costumes is initially disorienting. But that changes dramatically, once the fiddles come out and everyone breaks into song and dance.
There’s a good rationale for this, because the Appalachians were originally settled by early pioneers of English, Irish, Welsh, and Scottish blood, who brought their traditional folk music with them. Over the years this roots music was passed down — all the way to musicians like Tony Trischka, the dazzling banjo player who leads the smoking bluegrass band that tears up the stage with rousing versions of the play’s many pastoral ballads, composed by Steve Martin. For once, the songs in this play sound as if they actually came out of this idyllic woodland kingdom.